Osteoarthritis (OA) affects 27 million people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Best known as the “wear-and-tear” form of arthritis, OA breaks down cartilage between the joints, eventually causing the bones to grind together painfully. The most common type of arthritis, nearly one in two adults will develop knee OA during their lifetime.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is the second most common type of arthritis, affecting around 1.5 million Americans. A systemic autoimmune disease, it mainly attacks the synovial joints: the hands and wrists, shoulders, elbows, knees, ankles, feet, and toes. RA may eventually deform or destroy the joints that it affects.
Just about anyone can get knee OA. It usually develops after the age of 40, but it can potentially occur earlier. OA mostly affects the hands, hips, knees, and lower back. Knee OA is even more common in people who are overweight or obese. Two out of three obese adults are at risk of eventually developing this painful, potentially disabling condition.
RA mostly affects people ages 30 and older. The Arthritis Foundation reports that women get the disease two to three times more often than men do. Like with OA, having RA and being overweight or obese can make knee arthritis worse.
Exercising an arthritic knee may seem counterintuitive, but regular exercise can actually lessen — and even relieve — arthritis pain and other symptoms, such as stiffness and swelling.
There are several reasons to exercise with knee arthritis. For example:
- Exercise maintains the joint’s full range of motion.
- Exercise strengthens the muscles that support the joint.
- Strong muscles help the joint absorb shock.
Exercise doesn’t have to be hard to be beneficial. In fact, gentle, low-impact exercises are best for knee arthritis. They minimize stress on the joint even as they increase its flexibility and strength.
Mild discomfort during exercise is normal. So is being a little bit sore the day after exercise. But if you experience severe pain, swelling, or stiffness, stop exercising the affected joint and see your doctor.
According to the CDC, people with knee arthritis should do moderate exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week. You can even break it down into three, 10-minute sessions each day — it works just as well. You should experience better mobility and less pain within four to six weeks.
Walking is an excellent form of exercise. It’s low-impact, and because it’s a weight-bearing exercise, it helps strengthen the muscles and build bone. Wear good, sturdy shoes. Start out slow, and gradually increase your pace and distance for best results.
Water exercise, or walking in the shallow end of a pool, are also superb for muscle strength and knee flexibility. Because the body is buoyant in water, it lessens impact to near zero as it makes you work a little harder to move. Look for water exercise classes through your local Arthritis Foundation, community recreation center, or gym.
The very best knee exercises may be the ones you can do at home or even during a break at the office. They’re easy, effective, and convenient, and don’t require any special equipment. Do them slowly, gradually increasing the number of repetitions as your muscles get stronger.
Afterwards, be sure to do a few gentle stretching exercises to help prevent your muscles from tightening up. Consider exercising your knees every other day to give sore muscles a rest.
The following describe several of the best at-home exercises for knee arthritis:
- The Leg Raise (Lying): Lie flat on your back on the floor (or bed) with your arms at your sides, toes up. Keeping your leg straight, tighten your leg muscles and slowly lift it several inches. Tighten your stomach muscles to push your lower back down. Hold and count to five, then lower the leg as slowly as possible. Repeat, then switch to the other leg. Start with one set of four for each leg. This exercise strengthens the quadriceps, which are the large muscles on the front of your thigh that attach to your knee joint.
- The Hamstring Stretch (Lying): Lie on the floor (or bed) with both legs bent. Slowly lift one leg, still bent, and bring your knee back toward your chest. Link your hands behind your thigh (not your knee) and straighten your leg. Pull your straight leg back toward your head until you feel the stretch. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds, then slowly bend your knee and lower your leg back to the floor. This exercise stretches and strengthens your hamstrings, which are the muscles on the back of the thigh that attach to the knee.
- The Half-Squat: Standing with your feet shoulder-distance apart, stretch your arms out in front of you (hold on to a chair for balance, if necessary), and slowly bend your knees until you’re in a half-sitting position. Keep your back straight and chest lifted — don’t lean forward. With your feet flat on the floor, hold the position for five seconds, then slowly stand back up. Do 10 repetitions, and slowly work up to three sets of 10. This exercise strengthens the muscles in the front and back of your thighs, along with the gluteus (buttocks).
- The One-Leg Dip: Standing between two chairs, holding on to them for balance, lift one leg about 12 inches and hold it out in front of you. Slowly, keeping your back straight, bend the other leg and lower your body a few inches, as if you were about to sit in a chair. Don’t cross the lifted leg in front of the bent leg. Hold for five seconds and straighten back up. Repeat and switch legs. Start with one set of four leg dips for both legs, and slowly work up to three sets. This exercise strengthens the muscles in the front and back of your thighs, as well as your buttocks.
- The Leg Stretch: Sit on the floor with both legs out straight. Stabilize yourself with your hands on either side of your hips, keeping your back straight. Slowly bend one knee until it feels stretched, but not until it becomes painful. Hold the leg in that position for five seconds, then slowly straighten your leg out as far as you can, again holding for five seconds. Repeat, switching legs whenever one begins to tire, 10 times. This exercise strengthens the quadriceps, which are the muscles on the front of the thigh.
If you can, put a moist-heat pack on your arthritic knee for 20 minutes before you start exercising. Heat brings the blood up to the surface, decreasing stiffness and soothing — or even relieving — pain. If you take pain medications, try taking them about 45 minutes before you exercise for increased pain control during your workout.
After exercising, put an ice pack on the sore knee for 10 to 15 minutes. This will help to bring down any swelling that the exercise might have caused. It will also help to soothe and relieve pain.